I called 2011 the Year Of Surprises. While I don’t think 2012 can be summed up as neatly, I do think it had something of a common thread. Divisiveness. More so than any other year in recent memory, this particular year saw critics and fans alike disagreeing over movies in near equal measure. From mainstream blockbusters like “The Dark Knight Rises”, “The Amazing Spider-Man”, “Prometheus” and “Skyfall”, to artier fare like “The Master”, “Life Of Pi” and “Holy Motors”, people either loved it or hated it with a passion.
And that’s fantastic. One of the main reasons I started Electroshadow.com was to provide an avenue for the discussion of this artform. An oft-forgotten objective of film critiquing is not just to give the reader some food for thought, but also to pave the way for a two-way engagement, which ideally leads to enrichment for BOTH parties on their knowledge and appreciation of a film. Yes, critics can learn from Joe Public too. With this year’s output, it was like our job became that much easier. One of the highlights of the year was when folks came out in droves to mull over and discuss “Prometheus” on the site. Agree or disagree, that’s all part of the fun.
Which brings me to my annual Top 10 list. You may side with some of my choices, or reject most of them. It’s cool. What’s even cooler is if you tell me why you disagree and then submit your own list. I’d genuinely love to hear it. For now, here are the films that I thought and felt (two necessary components) stood out as the pinnacle of storytelling and filmmaking craftsmanship in 2012. Note: as usual, this list is a result of what I did and did not watch. For the latter, there are quite a few like “Silver Linings Playbook”, “The Impossible”, “Moonrise Kingdom”, “Rust And Bone”, “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Django Unchained”. I’ll catch up on those for sure.
Hong Kong films have been generally mediocre to terrible in the last few years. So when stuff like “Cold War” and this one pop up, it’s like a huge burst of fresh air. This cop thriller from director Cheang Pou Soi is sort of a mash-up of “Heat” and “Initial D”. The Michael Mann influences are particularly strong, and in all the right ways. Moody and slow-burning yet intense, with a standout performance by the always watchable Anthony Wong Chau Sang.
THE PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER
Novelist Stephen Chbosky’s first attempt at directing, from a story of his own creation no less, has yielded impressive results. The only other example I can recall where an author made such a strong directorial debut would be Clive Barker with “Hellraiser”. Coincidentally, this one deals with demons, pain and fear as well, albeit on a more everyday level. It’s a coming-of-age tale told with admirable subtlety and sweetness. The young cast is great too, with Emma Watson and Ezra Miller making the biggest impression. Even Logan Lerman, who annoyed the crap out of me in last year’s “The Three Musketeers” turns in a very solid performance. Which goes to show how important the director is in getting the best out of an actor.
In my Worst Of 2012 list, I lamented the dearth of good horror. Thank heavens then for Barry Levinson. Who is probably the most unlikely champion for the genre ever. The director is known more for dramas like “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Rain Man”, not gory scare-fests about killer parasites. “The Bay” is genuinely frightening, because it feels real. Levinson sets the story in a real place (The Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, USA) with a real ecological issue (water pollution), then very cleverly presents it all in the found footage style. This film gets under your skin, in more ways than one, and that unnerving feeling lingers long after the closing credits have rolled. Now that’s horror.
10. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED
Films like “Safety Not Guaranteed” continue to prove that science-fiction can and does thrive even with modest budgets. But to be honest, I wouldn’t really call this a sci-fi. Although the central premise is about time-travel, director Colin Trevorrow isn’t as interested in the wheres and whens of it as he is about the why. How many times have we mentally played out some defining moment in our lives, wishing it could’ve turned out differently? If we are unable to move on from the past, we feel compelled to revisit it. It’s a great metaphor for regret and hindsight. At its heart this is a love story, and is easily the best rom-com of the year. What I also love about this film is the characterisation. From the leads to the supporting characters, they all feel lived-in. Trevorrow always keeps us guessing as to whether the prospective time-traveller is for real or just plain crazy. Right until the climax, where we are rewarded for staying with these characters. Funny, insightful and uplifting, this criminally underseen gem deserves your time.
9. END OF WATCH
Y’know, I never expected this to end up on my Best Of list. That was of course, before I watched it. Writer-director David Ayer’s day-in-the-life police drama isn’t anything ground-breaking, nor is it Event Cinema. So why then, is it here at the 9th spot? Because it is one of the most absorbing films I’ve seen this year. From the moment we are introduced to the lives of two LAPD officers, we’re hooked. “End Of Watch” celebrates good men being good at their jobs and loving it, which is a refreshing change from the dark side of law enforcement often portrayed on screen. If not for the slightly episodic flow of the plot, and the inconsistent documentary approach, it would rank higher on the list. A lot of credit should go to Michael Peña and Jake Gyllenhaal for making us care deeply about their characters. Peña is especially good here. If by the end of the story you’re not moved to tears (or at least moved), chances are you have a heart of stone. And this is from someone who generally dislikes cops.
8. WRECK-IT RALPH
This is another pleasant surprise. By now, I’ve been so used to Pixar trumping Disney’s ass that when the year’s best animated film didn’t turn out to be “Brave”, I almost couldn’t believe it. The truth is however, Pixar has been doing everyone a huge favour for so long by raising the overall bar so high that eventually, someone would HAVE to rise to the challenge. Which has been met in “Wreck-It Ralph”. To be fair, the Disney-Pixar corporate merger has resulted in a cross-pollination of influences, inspiration and quality. So this is the most Pixar-like film Pixar never made. The characters are relatable, the story is engaging, and most crucially, the film’s emotions are sincere — and very affecting. Destined to be a perennial must-watch among kids, parents… and certain critics.
7. THE CABIN IN THE WOODS
You’ll find as many haters as you will fans of this. Right, so why the heck was I whining about 2012 being a crap year for horror when I’ve got one in my Honourable Mentions section and another here at Number 7? Well, simply because “The Cabin In The Woods” does not exactly belong to that genre. It is a deconstruction of the genre itself. We’re not just talking breaking down and rearranging horror stereotypes, while blending it with comedy and sci-fi. What’s most awesome about this Drew Goddard/Joss Whedon effort is how it manages to re-contextualise every other horror film you’ve ever seen and give them all new meaning, according to this film’s mythology. In my book, any film that has the balls to attempt this and then pull it off successfully, deserves to be honoured.
Like the No.10 entry, this is a time-travel movie that is more concerned with telling a story about human nature. “Looper” explores deep stuff such as cause & effect, the futility of selfishness versus the power of selflessness, and the evolution of Bruce Willis’ receding hairline. That it does all this in such crowd-pleasing fashion, with gun fights, chases and explosions, says a lot for Rian Johnson’s gifts as a filmmaker. The film has some flaws: its pacing is a little erratic and there are a couple of irrational contrivances for the setup to exist (eg: Instead of getting Loopers to kill their future selves, why not just send them to the bottom of the ocean or something). Yet none of that matters. “Looper” is a glimpse at a smart and distinctive creative vision, stylishly realised. Trust me, in the future this guy is going to be looked upon as an important part of 21st century Cinema (cos my future self told me so).
5. THE AVENGERS
This is without a doubt THE most entertaining movie of the year. I wouldn’t question anyone who puts it at the top of their list. “The Avengers” works. The characterisation may be barebones and the plot a flimsy excuse to get all the team members together. Yet, the movie just works. Beautifully so. There’s a feeling of effortlessness in the way everything comes together, and clicks. Some have dismissively cited that as proof of the movie being little more than weightless fluff. What those people don’t realise is just how hard it really was to make the film work as well as it does. A mega-franchise picture made out of several franchise pictures comprised of dozens of characters and complex backstories was always going to be a nightmare to figure out. Yet Joss Whedon did it, and made it so darned fun in the process. That’s nothing short of a minor miracle as far as I’m concerned, and why “The Avengers” belongs among the year’s best.
4. BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD
One of the things I miss most in this age of digital film is grain. Y’know, those tiny speckles that dance all over the screen, making it seem as if the film itself is alive. And that’s what strikes me most about arthouse drama “Beasts Of The Southern Wild”. How ALIVE it feels. The whole film is drenched in heavy film grain. Which does not for even one second stop the imagery from jumping out at you. When the sun’s rays filter through tree leaves or wisps of hair, you can almost feel its warmth. When characters slobber over a meal of fresh shrimp or crabs, you can practically smell the sea salt in the air. If ever a film could be described as a tactile experience, this would be it. Director Behn Zeitlin has crafted a work of spellbinding naturalism, wrapped up in a study of family, poverty, man’s relationship with nature, and social class disparity. Adding to the film’s considerable charms is 9-year old Quvenzhane Wallis. She is absolutely adorable, and carries the lead role like a seasoned screen veteran. She, like the film, is a wonderful discovery.
3. THE DESCENDANTS
This is actually a 2011 release but as usual our local distributors see fit to bring in the prestige Oscar potentials at the beginning of the following year. That it has remained in my mind for so long and still figured so highly speaks volumes for its power. “The Descendants” is a love letter to the island of Hawaii, and the film’s identity is very much like its natives. Good-natured, gentle and unshowy, with a leisurely pace that is all its own. The perfect setting to tell an intimate story of how families survive both because and in spite of each other. George Clooney gives what I wouldn’t hesitate to call a career-best performance. He completely strips away his glamourous Hollywood Star persona to essay a dowdy middle-aged father desperately trying to hold it all together after a family tragedy. Alexander Payne directs with masterful restraint from a screenplay he adapted off Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel. Payne doesn’t make very many films, but if every effort is even half as good as this, then the wait is well worth it.
2. LIFE OF PI
At the risk of sounding pretentious, I’d say “Life Of Pi” is transcendental. A pretty big word there. Then again, this is a pretty big film. Not so much in the blockbuster context — though it undoubtedly has mainstream appeal as its massive global Box Office haul shows. “Pi” is big of heart and of mind. It isn’t afraid to challenge its audience with some profound themes and ideas. Yet it also makes sure to reward us. Some people saw a pseudo-intellectual movie with a cop-out ending. I just saw a breathtakingly beautiful movie with an ending that reaffirmed my own set of personal values. When a work of art makes you stop and think about more than its immediate content or message, I’d say that qualifies as transcendental. And it’s largely thanks to that great cinematic chameleon, Ang Lee.
Every year, there is at least one film that reminds me why I love films and filmmaking so very much. Welcome to this year’s culprit. “Argo” is one of those cases where if you weren’t told it was based on a true story, you’d never believe it. A CIA team poses as a film crew scouting for locations in order to extract a group of hostages in riot-torn 70s Iran. To make their cover convincing, they pay for a real script, then hire an old Hollywood producer and a legendary make-up artist (John Chambers, who won an Oscar for his work on “Planet Of The Apes”). Truth is stranger fiction, alright.
The film starts off being funny as heck, with the lion’s share of the laughs coming from Alan Arkin and John Goodman as the showbiz vets. As the story progresses and the stakes get higher, director Ben Affleck reveals his hand. This is no breezy caper. It is a film with something to say. “Argo” is a statement about how we cannot live without creativity and make-believe — literally so, in the case of the hostages. It’s Affleck’s way of paying tribute to his chosen artform, which is all about wondrous, awe-inspiring, life-changing make-believe. This guy has come a REALLY long way from his days as tabloid fodder. In the span of just three directorial efforts, he’s gone from good to great to brilliant. This is no hype. “Argo” is top-notch filmmaking in every respect, and while it was a close contest for the top two spots, this is decidedly the best film of the year.